Most filmgoers—and that includes most critics—don’t watch final credits. Granted, those scrolling inventories can be a bore, especially if the movie employed hundreds of CGI techs. But occasionally they lead to an unexpected final note that nearly everyone misses. Caché, the latest provocation from Paris-based, German-born writer-director Michael Haneke, includes one that might be essential, if hard to spot—which is probably why, right from the opening titles, Haneke makes this film a tutorial in watching. He scrolls the words over a fixed-position shot of an odd little modern house somewhere in Paris. Viewers who might think nothing’s happening are just the ones he wants to grab.
In the director’s recent films, one recurrent theme is the Western European upper-middle class—and thus civilization as he knows it—under unbearable stress. Violence looms, threatening the very people who would seem to live the safest lives. His characters aren’t the only ones Haneke hopes to discomfort, however. He also wants to implicate the film’s audience. With that shot of the house, we’re watching what the film’s central characters are watching, even if spouses Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) are understandably a little more involved: The home we’ve all been viewing is theirs, captured on a surveillance video that’s been left anonymously at their front door.
Equating viewers with voyeurs isn’t a novel idea; it’s part of the strategy of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, both of which were made decades before the mass acceptance of video. At their most effective, Haneke’s movies are more open-ended than such precursors. A critical hit that has (understandably) attracted significant detractors, Caché resembles a Hitchcock thriller for a time, but it doesn’t end like one. Although the final shot offers an intriguing piece of information, drawing an exact diagram of the plot is left to each individual observer.
What the movie reveals of that plot isn’t overly involved. Georges and Anne are both literary types: He hosts a book-chat TV show (a remarkably common occupation in French movies), and she works for a publisher. They have one son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), who at 12 seems well on his way to an Oedipal meltdown. When videos of the exterior of their house keep arriving, some wrapped in childlike renderings of bloody victims, Georges becomes alarmed. Then a new tape shows up, depicting a drive to a notorious Parisian suburb—one of those recently convulsed by riots—and Georges follows its journey.
The trip leads to Majid (Maurice Bénichou), a Franco-Algerian man he knew as a boy. Majid has reason to hate Georges, who accuses his old acquaintance of sending the videos. Majid denies it, later underscoring the disavowal in the film’s fleeting but deeply unsettling shocker. Another suspect in the matter of the tapes is never exactly identified, but watch the closing scene carefully.
Since establishing an international reputation with 1997’s squirm-inducing Funny Games, Haneke has made films about a range of subjects, generally sprinkled with clues that he sees them all as chapters in an ongoing saga. The central female character in 2000’s Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, for example, is also named Anne Laurent and played by Binoche. Both Annes are intimate with a man named Georges. Funny Games features an Anna and a Georg, and the heroine of 2003’s Time of the Wolf, who becomes a widow in the opening scene, is another Anna. (The only recent exception to this pattern is 2001’s The Piano Teacher, which was adapted from a novel.) Clearly, the filmmaker thinks that all of these people have something in common.
That thing, basically, is guilt. Everyone who lives comfortably in contemporary Europe, Haneke’s films suggest, does so because of crimes committed in the past—if not by them, then by their ancestors, their peers, or their governments. This may be true on some level, but it doesn’t seem especially helpful. It’s legitimate for Caché to call attention to a savage incident in 1961, when Parisian cops massacred a group of Algerian protesters, but less credible to saddle Georges with the metaphorical responsibility for such infamies. And the film’s central act of violence, although visceral, isn’t persuasive as an expression of character. It’s essentially a performance, designed to edify both Georges and the viewer. Haneke’s films frequently pierce the skin, but their politics don’t cut all that deep.
Still, as a formal exercise, Caché is a knockout. Binoche and Auteuil are impeccable, of course, with the latter’s sense of menace expertly modulated. Most striking, however, is how the director’s opening gambit infects the entire film: Every time he holds a fixed-position shot, it raises the possibility that we’re watching a segment from a new surveillance video. Haneke is drawn to knives and razors, but what he does with a camera is more powerful. It might even be compelling enough to convince some people to stick around for the final credits.
Tim Kirkman probably intended to make many points with his 1998 first-person documentary, Dear Jesse, but here are the ones I remember: North Carolina is a big place, and there are gay people there. Both lessons are essential to Kirkman’s new film, Loggerheads, which isn’t nonfiction but does claim to be “based on a true story.” A heartfelt if dull example of a genre that could be termed the New South acoustic-guitar family drama, the film wisely forgoes all the driving from place to place that characterized Dear Jesse. Instead, it emphasizes the state’s breadth by setting three linked stories in three disparate locations in three contiguous years (but always around Mother’s Day).
Kure Beach, 1999: Philosophical vagabond and HIV-positive sometime hustler Mark (Kip Pardue) arrives with vague notions of saving the loggerhead turtle, an endangered species and the movie’s belabored metaphor for love, life, and serendipity. He’s offered refuge by George (Michael Kelly), a gentle gay man who’s mourning his lover. Eden, 2000: Mark’s adoptive parents, Elizabeth (Tess Harper) and Robert (Chris Sarandon), right-wing Christians whose disapproval pushed their gay son away, contemplate love and acceptance. Elizabeth also frets that the guys who just moved in across the street are gay and contends with the mildly outrageous behavior of a longtime neighbor (Ann Owens Pierce) who was Mark’s unjudgmental friend. Asheville, 2001: Despondent rental-car clerk Grace (Bonnie Hunt) decides she must find the son she gave up for adoption. She disregards the warnings of her mother (Michael Learned) and hires a detective who specializes in such cases.
As Patty Griffin, Grey DeLisle, Mark Geary, and others breathily warble ballads, writer-director Kirkman switches among the three chapters. This is the sort of film in which each of the characters is either deeply repressed or laid-back to a fault, so every revelation is greeted coolly. Unlike the similarly set Junebug, it’s also the sort of film in which the carefully constructed zoological metaphor tends to overwhelm the carefully constructed plainspokenness. “It’s a big ocean,” says Mark, by way of explaining why turtles—and people—so rarely connect. But never mind the great big sea. Loggerheads is so slow on land that it makes even the distance from the Appalachians to the Atlantic feel immense.CP